OverviewThe Whetstone Mountains are one of the big “Sky Island” ranges in southeast Arizona: highly prominent, compact mountain ranges overlooking broad valleys. The highest point of the Whetstones is Apache Peak, elevation 7,711 feet. Like the other ranges in this part of the state, the Whetstones are covered in dense scrub, grasses, cactus, succulents, with low woody trees slightly higher. The mountain is not high enough to support larger firs or pines, and cactus can be found very near to the top. The very top is open with outstanding views in all directions.
Apache Peak has a well-deserved reputation for the brutal bushwhacking needed to get to the top. Until recently, the only viable route was from the east side via French Joe Canyon. In recent years, the west-side approach via the historic Empire Ranch (now managed by the BLM) has opened up. The west side has gentler slopes and slightly less brush. Nevertheless, it’s an all-day grind and any route will involve a lot of brush and plenty of thorns. The east-side approach is slightly shorter in distance, but the west-side needs a stronger vehicle to manage the roads.
Getting ThereWest side approach via Empire Ranch
The topo maps do not show all road junctions and there has been some re-alignment of roads. Allow yourself extra time to explore these roads. I would suggest to come the day before and car-camp that night. You don't want to be trying these roads for the first time in the dark.
From Tucson, head east on Interstate-10 to the state route AZ-83 junction. Proceed south about 15 miles to the turn-off to the Empire Ranch on the left side of the road
Follow the good hard-pack northeast, bypassing the Empire Ranch buildings via another road about at the BM 4644 marker. You’ll come to a T-junction and go left.
Keep going northeast along the good road, which eventually runs along the top of a levee with big cottonwoods lining it. The map says you pass by the Cienega Ranch. Here, it gets a little confusing, since the topo map does not show some roads.
Cienega Ranch area
You want to head eastward and follow the road that enters Section 25 and goes northeast. The road zigs and zags and a gate or two needs to be passed (close them afterwards). The road goes northeast then bends southeast, gaining onto a small ridge. Some power lines run through here. At a Y-junction, drop left moderately steeply down the hill. The road is one-car width here, but in pretty good shape. You enter Section 30 and stay on this road as it runs in and out of a creekbed for a number of miles, eventually coming to a T-junction with a water tank set to your right past an open gate. Go left.
The road drops again toward the creekbed. We parked in a small pull-out before a sharp right turn. To here we covered just under 14 miles, and took us 1 hour, 15 minutes.
High-clearance 4-wheel drive is absolutely mandatory for the last 5 miles. As we walked the remaining road to its end, we noted a few spots where the erosion was very pronounced. An ATV would be best for the very end, although a robust vehicle with a patient driver can probably manage the road. However, we sensed we’d be walking faster than the vehicle, so we parked where we did.
Red TapeNone as far as I know.
Las Cienegas National Conservation Area.
CampingUsual rules apply. Try to re-use a pre-existing site. Be very careful with open fires.
External LinksTrip Report, 11-19-11
Empire Ranch Foundation
Kartchner Caverns State Park: The Kartchner Caverns are accessed from the east side, off of AZ-90 from Benson, and features a spectacular cave system. The history of how this was discovered and the political maneuvering needed to make it a state park is as interesting as the cave itself.
Western RouteStart walking the road. A mile later it comes to the junction with a side road leading to Apache Spring. Stay straight. Three miles later it ends, slightly beyond where the map says it ends. You pass two gates toward the very end, and beware: the end is very sudden: a drop of about 15 feet if you’re not careful.
You have some options here. (1) Drop down into the drainage, then scamper up the other side via a rocky slot with a big tree in it. We did this but it required us to drop into another drainage farther up. (2) Drop into the drainage and stay in it. It bends left. Go up a couple of rocky water-falls, one about 8 feet high. When you see a chance to angle right and ascend, do so. (3) Avoid the drainage and instead barge up the hill and gain the ridge slightly east of spot-elevation 5,898.
If you go the drainage route, you will gain onto a gently-sloping ridge. Go north, then cut east to gain onto a small hill marked by a single 6,200-foot contour, in the west part of Section 31. At the knob, view the steep slope ahead of you, with a cliff about a third of the way up. The brush and cactus closes in here, so hunker down and plow through it. You can bypass the cliffs to the left. Keep an east bearing directly up-slope and meet a prominent ridge at about the 6,800-foot level. This stretch is the slowest and scratchiest segment of the whole hike.
Now on the man crest, angle left and follow the gentler gradients northeast. You come to a smaller knob at about 7,200 feet. Crossing that, you now see Apache Peak up ahead, a rounded hill. Although it looks impossibly brushy, there is always an open path to follow, but at times you deal with rocks and the brush.
Although not technically difficult, this peak requires solid route-finding and a willingness to put up with endless brush, cactus, shin-daggers (lechuguilla), agave, and in places, very thick brush. On the descent, pay attention to your route so as to be on the right ridge coming down. It’s best to retrace this route if you came up this way. The canyons can be deceptively steep and cliffy, in spite of what the map shows (or does not show, as the case may be).
If you chose option (3), it appears this long ridge goes all the way up. We eyeballed it from on high and it looked like it would go. But I can’t say for sure.
If you park back near Apache Spring, it's about 12-13 miles round trip and over 4,000 feet of accumulated gain.